Bob Ridge wants to talk.
In fact, the VP of health, safety and environment at ConocoPhillips says it's been too long. You know, we should have sat down sooner -- like before the American public began ranking his industry beneath tobacco peddlers.
Bob says that's why his company is reaching out to "thought leaders and the public," to "reestablish trust and relationship."
I'm bobbing my head, agreeably, already embarrassed by the dirty things I've said about the oil barons and their henchmen.
His sincerity, part fallen Dog the Bounty Hunter and part Burl Ives, punctures me like a diamond-studded drill bit. I want to leap up and tell Bob that I got here as quickly as I could, you know, but with traffic and work, and I only got the invitation last week and I was hoping... It's too much. I don't know where to begin.
Wait a minute. Thought leaders? Relationship?
Of course, Ridge isn't speaking to me, not personally. His scripted address is intended for all of us, this 150-odd crowd gathered at the University of Texas at San Antonio campus and the millions beyond. The public relations maneuver, billed as a "Conversation on Energy," has Bob on a 33-city tour. We in San Antonio are stop No. 32.
Bob and ConocoPhillips are not alone in their foray into the cynical American wilds. Ever since Americans were forced to juxtapose the devastation of New Orleans with the record-breaking oil-industry profits that followed, companies like British Petroleum, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Chevron have ramped their advertising campaigns into overdrive.
Beyond the Power of Tomorrow
Until this most recent wave struck, the most effective Big Oil redux came from Ogilvy Public Relations World Wide. In 1999, British Petroleum had just merged with Amoco and the then-conjoined twins proceeded to gobble up Arco and Burmah Castrol.
While British Petroleum had been criticized in the past for claiming the environmental high ground while actively working to prevent new pollution-limiting regulations, its potentially criminal behaviors in Apartheid South Africa and terror-scorched Colombia had done a number on its reputation. The mass merger was an opportunity if not for redemption then at least reinvention.
The next year "Beyond Petroleum" was born.
The "reformed sinner" approach, as one key public relations experts cast it, worked -- for a time. The vibrant green-and-yellow signs suggested something holistic, a many-petaled lotus of spiritual kinetic. It suggested something other than the crude combustion of petrol that remains the company's principal product.
Activist consumers awaited news of major new renewable investments. It was a wait in vain.
BP's new-bought luster was already fading when the company's Texas City, Texas, refinery exploded in 2005, leaving 15 dead and as many as 100 injured. Then came inevitable questions about mismanagement that later carried over to the company's repeated major oil pipeline ruptures that leaked hundreds of thousands of gallons into Alaska's Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean.
Texas City was all but forgotten five months later when Katrina roared in from the Gulf, tearing up offshore oilfield equipment and land-based refineries before breaching the New Orleans levies. The whole world was watching.
"There was so much more attention to rebuilding the oil facilities as opposed to people's homes," said Diane Farsetta, senior researcher at the Center for Media & Democracy, a non-profit organization that monitors the active intersection of public relations and the media. "At the same time, we were hearing about these record-breaking profits that the oil companies were making. Ever since then it seems like we've been hearing about these campaigns."
Record-high pump prices met record-high industry profits. The public was not amused.
John Hofmeister hadn't been president of Houston-based Shell Oil but a few months when the nightmare PR scenario began. It was a period of "intolerant debate" he would later say.
Exxon, in an attempt to explain how it could embrace historic profits while a neglected diaspora of survivors limped deeper into the Interior, launched a series of talks called "Energy Outlook."
Chevron's massive "Human Energy" advertising campaign soon followed, asking consumers to "join us."
Interestingly, most of these efforts didn't get underway until after voters turned Congress over to the Democrats in what was widely interpreted as an anti-war vote. (Voter surveys also turned up anger over the influence of Big Oil.) Then Capital Hill began to question the industry's subsidies and, more recently, talk has turned to regulating carbon-dioxide emissions via taxes or a cap-and-trade system.
Things were getting serious.
Of course, the companies had literally decades to get ready for growing public and governmental interest in post-oil economies. Shrinking oil and gas reserves, rising world populations, health concerns linked to air and water pollution and a growing body of scientific evidence about global warming were all open secrets more than 30 years ago.
Instead of leading in a new direction, the response of Big Oil has been Big Lobbying.
Turns out the company with zero investment in renewable energy technologies is the top spender in lobbying. ExxonMobil doused Washington during the 2006 election year with $14.5 million worth of lobbyists and $833,000 on political donations, with a telling 90 percent going to Republicans. This year the company spent $6.4 million on lobbyists.
By comparison, the other majors have been more modest, averaging around $2.5 million this year and $3.8 million in 2006.
Meanwhile, the investments made by Chevron and ConocoPhillips in renewable technologies that could potentially break America's oil "addiction," as President Bush has termed it, is still less than 1 percent of their annual profits (.3 and .2, respectively), according to recent news reports. BP and Shell invest 1.2 percent of their annual profit in renewables. And ExxonMobil, of course, is NA.
"The bottom line is that for all these companies it's about oil," said Steve Kretzmann, executive director of D.C.-based Oil Change International. "Any attempt to sell themselves as anything other than oil companies is disingenuous."
It becomes obvious fast that Bob isn't in San Antonio to make any great promises about fighting global warming or significantly greening his company. He tells our group straightaway that the next 30 years belong to oil, natural gas and coal. In the meantime, ConocoPhillips will be "keeping a watch on global climate change and our water resources."
Even when it comes to research and development, two-thirds of the company's research money still targets oil and gas rather than non-polluting renewable sources, we're told. Internationally, this is expressed in ConocoPhillips' multi-billion-dollar partnership with Chevron in the ecological disaster that is the Canadian tar sands. While the massive strip mines in Alberta, Canada, are believed to hold the highest petroleum reserves outside Saudi Arabia, removing them is considered the most polluting and energy-intensive form of petroleum extraction.
When I get my chance at the mic, I launch after the panel's lone "environmentalist" who used his three-minute intro to suggest that, yes, we need to protect our air, land and water but that it's "disingenuous" (there's that word again) "to blame the oil companies for global warming."
Maybe, I say, but I wasn't around when Big Oil got mass transit removed from so many American cities almost a century ago or all the years they colluded with the automotive industry to keep the pumps flowing or these recent decades of fighting tooth-and-nail to maintain billions in subsidies even as the Earth overheated.
Am I rambling? Why does the master of ceremonies, this smiling Hispanic Chamber rep "AJ," keep motioning for the mic back?
The gallery is not perceptively moved by my tirade.
It's only as I exit and a PR flack asks for our "surveys" that it strikes me. Surveys? I think. We didn't get a survey.
She is gesturing toward to the paper in my hand. The one reading: "YES! I am interested in being more involved in the Conversation on Energy. Name: Email: Address:"
Bob isn't here to find out what we think about his company. What he wants is permission to function through us.
Barring that, he at least wants to delay or diffuse potentially angry outbursts to our representatives in Congress. At least until the new Energy Bill is wrapped up next month, proposed Renewable Portfolio Standards are minimized and the industry's $8 billion in subsidies are safe.
As Farsetta explains to my na´ve self, efforts like the "Conversation" seek to "erase the perceived distinction of you as an individual and this huge oil company." To suggest we are truly in this thing together on equal footing.
On this moonlit night they came as Bob. And, you know, he wasn't a wanton, manipulative, power-mongering, multi-tentacled beast at all. He just happens to work for one.
GREG HARMAN writes for the San Antonio Current, where a version of this story first appeared.